Saudi Arabia’s Quest for Foreign Tourists Progresses

Kingdom pushes ahead to develop tourism sector; yet fear of engaging Westerners keeps tourists under restrictions.

Grand Mosque in Medina 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Grand Mosque in Medina 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
When Saudi Arabia first announced plans to open the country to tourism by inviting Western non-Muslims to visit its archaeological sites, vast deserts and snow-capped mountains in Abha, it was not without trepidation.
Saudi reaction to large numbers of tourists, especially in rural towns such as Ha’il and Taif, could prove less than enthusiastic.
The Saudi government’s announcement was in 1999 and Saudis remain cautious 12 years later of just who will be tramping through their souks in the desert and sunbathing at resorts on the Red Sea coast.
“When you see what is happening in Dubai, I think it is understandable that Saudis rather do without foreign tourists,” a Jeddah tourist agency manager told The Media Line.
Saudis are not looking at Dubai as a template for their own tourism goals. Escapades by Westerners of having sex on the beach in 2008 and the recent public meltdown of a Western tourist who partially disrobed in a Dubai mall after an Emirati woman criticized her for skimpy clothing have left Saudis cold.
Yet Saudi Arabia has pushed some of those concerns aside to promote aggressive programs to wean itself from oil revenue. The bid to attract tourists goes hand in hand with King Abdullah’s efforts to build six economic cities to diversify its economy and to attract Western investors. The same strategy applies to the tourism sector.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) is pursuing foreign investors to build hotels, resorts and tourism infrastructure in anticipation of an influx of tourists. Changes in Saudi Arabia’s commercial laws and the Kingdom’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) have made it easier for Westerners to do business with Saudis.
Foreign investment in tourism infrastructure means jobs. Mecca Governor Prince Khaled Al-Faisal recently announced that tourism projects were underway in Qunfuda and Al-Lith, which are expected to create an estimated 50,000 jobs. In Taif, more jobs are on the horizon when Saudis issue construction contracts this year to develop a SR120 million ($32 million) tourist project.
The SCTA announced earlier this month that 21 new hotels scheduled for completion throughout the country by 2014 would create 15,000 new jobs. By 2020, an estimated 1.5 million tourism and support services jobs will be available to Saudis.
Saudis have made significant progress to develop the infrastructure necessary to support its burgeoning tourist market, which exceeded 10.5 million visitors in 2009. This includes pilgrims, business people and tourists. Under SCTA’s chairman, Prince Sultan bin Salman, the commission had the difficult task of wrangling the Kingdom’s 13 disparate provinces and myriad authorities and jurisdictions with varying levels of enthusiasm to participate in a cohesive tourism program.
The SCTA’s primary goal was to open provincial tourist offices in rural outbacks like Baha, Asir, Ha’il, Jizan, Qassim and Jouf where tribal customs are strong and outsiders are tolerated but not necessarily embraced.
The SCTA acknowledged this in its 2009 strategic investment plan to ensure that tourism be consistent with “Islamic values and principles, compatibility with the Saudi society, and to be economically, socially, culturally and environmentally feasible.”
Compatibility with Saudi Arabia’s Islamic and cultural sensitivities is perhaps the Kingdom’s largest stumbling block to expanding the industry to attract Western non-Muslims who may not be willing to limit their visit to tour groups.
However, Saudi Arabia wants to focus its energies on promoting tourism that require group visits. Sports tourism for football fans and players, and eco-tourism that includes camping, desert safaris, scuba diving and desert and mountain hiking have been approved by the SCTA.
The commission also offers festival tourism in which visitors attend the annual Al-Jenadryah Festival in Riyadh and other regional events. Equally important to the commission is the promotion of “health tourism,” which permits foreigners to receive medical care at Saudi hospitals.
But there is a limit to this openness. For now, Saudi Arabia does not permit tourists armed only with a map to set out on their own adventure without supervision from a tour company. In fact, the Saudi Embassy website does not provide information on obtaining tourist visas. Instead, only tour companies licensed by the SCTA can get tourist visas for individuals.
The SCTA began licensing Saudi tour companies in 2008 to handle visa red tape. By the end of 2009, the commission licensed 64 tour guides who underwent extensive training to deal with domestic and foreign tourists. The commission also licensed at least 34 tour-operating companies, and was considering an additional 150 applications last year, according to the commission.
“I have not received a single tourist (visa) application from anybody outside of Saudi Arabia,” said a licensed Jeddah tour operator, who asked not to be named. “I’m sure I will eventually see applications, but there is no flood of inquiries from people who want to come here.”
This may be because although Saudi tourism officials might want foreign visitors, there is no marketing campaign to attract them. Only savvy travelers can track down a licensed tour operator, bridge the language barrier and apply for permission. Visitors also must be part of a group of 20 or more people that tours Saudi Arabia under the supervision of a licensed tour operator.
“I don’t see group tours as an attraction for a lot of foreigners,” said Muhammad Al-Yamani, who manages a three-star hotel on Palestine Road in Jeddah and caters mostly to Saudis and Hajj pilgrims. “It’s too strict. A lot of people outside Saudi Arabia and the GCC are used to traveling in foreign countries without being part of a group.”
Another consideration is Saudi Arabia’s social customs and laws. Women must wear the abaya (hijabs for non-Muslims are optional) and must have a male guardian with them. Unlike in Dubai and Egypt, alcohol, cinemas and nightclubs are absent in the Kingdom.
Yet Jeddah’s four- and five-star hotels along the Red Sea coast offer access to secluded resort beaches that are off-limits to Saudis and permit guests without restrictions to sunbathe, swim and take scuba diving lessons. Hotels, such as the InterContinental, Hilton, Golden Tulip and Meridian, also offer boating and deep sea fishing packages.
Abha, which is about 500 miles south of Riyadh, defies the Saudi Arabia image of vast deserts with its resorts nestled deep in the hillsides and wide vistas of tree-lined, snow-topped mountains. Many of Abha’s hotels offer packages to Asir National Park, the 4,000-year-old city of Najran at the Saudi-Yemeni border and area museums.
A typical Saudi destination is Madain Saleh, the pre-Islamic archaeological site about 250 miles northwest of Medina.
“There are a lot of hotels and resorts being built now,” said Hassan Younes, an Egyptian expat working for a five-store hotel near Jeddah’s Corniche. “It means jobs for my friends and family in Egypt. It means I might be able to get a better job. Saudis here in Jeddah like dealing with foreigners, especially Westerners, so they are happy about the future. Saudis in other areas? I’m not so sure, but if it means jobs, then there are no troubles.”